The following is an exchange on a community discussion board that I had this week with my neighbors about a “Day of Solidarity” that took place in public schools. I’ve changed the names of my neighbors and edited some of what I and they wrote for the sake of brevity. To me some of the comments perfectly illustrate why progressive cities like Seattle end up with terrible public policy. It’s because of the paternalism that runs so rampant in our communities.
My first post
‘On Wednesday, public schools around Seattle are marking a “Day of Solidarity”. Yesterday we received a note from [our daughter’s principal]… Like at many schools, some teachers will be wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts [and] at the assembly they will read “Let’s Talk About Race” by Julius Lester.
My wife and I took the time to find out more about this book and have some real concerns. Many people who have read it think it’s not at all suitable for younger kids. They quote lines from the book such as “I had a brother who was nine years older than me, but he is dead”. Others commented that the illustrations are disturbing. For example, one wrote:
“The drawings are colorful and interesting but at the same time weird and unsettling, especially at the end of the book where he discusses taking off our skin.”
Another wrote, “Two of my kids were freaked out by the pictures.”
Getting beyond the book, we learned that the author is quite controversial and has written other books on race including the disturbingly titled, “When Dad Killed Mom” and “Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!” He also happens to have been involved in the SNCC and was the first to coin the name of the “Black Power” group.
My wife [spoke] with the principal this afternoon … they only obtained a copy of the book yesterday, and didn’t know anything about the author or his background.
It’s concerning to us how little thought appears to have gone into any of the actions the school is taking…. This is clearly an important topic that’s dividing the country, but as we all know, adults have a hard enough time thinking through all of its elements, understanding the issues and forming an opinion. How are we to expect that teachers, with what appears to be no training and no developed curriculum, can deal with all the myriad questions and concerns of kids our daughter’s age (she’s in first grade)? … Our plan has been to bring these issues up with her at what we consider are age appropriate times.
[I signed off explaining that the principal was understanding when we explained that our daughter wouldn’t attend the assembly and I encouraged other parents to contact their school if they had similar concerns]’
Several neighbors thanked us for taking the time do the research and sharing it. Others wrote supportive comments, such as:
“This is how they plan on spending kindergartners’ time? Is there any aspect of this city, today, that is run by competent people?”
[Sam] responded with the following:
‘Sigh. So from the top:
Julius Lester is an award winning author of children’s books. “Look Out Whitey!” was written in 1968. Since then, he hasn’t written about [W]hitey.
The book has high ratings on Amazon and is a known resource. The main two complaints are the “bodies without skin” images may not be suitable for K age (it’s rated grades 1-5) and (ironically) that it presents a “color-blind” view of society…
Honestly, this is why my kid doesn’t go to [that school] anymore. School tries to do the right thing and the parents go ballistic. Over and over and over again. That, and how the school treated my daughter as a problem, not a person.
Seattle is not some nice pretty lilywhite place of happiness… [Short discussion of its historical treatment of Chinese, Japanese and blacks]
If you don’t want your kid reading a book, that’s your prerogative as a parent. But you cannot stop the signal. One assembly is barely a diversity class, much less a curriculum, but when we’re even fighting that? Yeah. We have a long, long way to go.’
‘Thanks for your comment [Sam]. I’m sorry to hear how your daughter was treated by [the school].
In regards to the Julius Lester book, the core issue for me as a parent is the age appropriateness of it, not whether or not he’s a novice writer or an award-winning one. As you acknowledge, it’s not rated for all of the kids that attend the school and as I pointed out, many parents with kids within its recommended age range didn’t think it was suitable for their kids, some of whom were disturbed by it.
I agree with [Susan] that conversations can help this issue and I also agree with you that one assembly is no more than a token gesture. My bigger issue with what Seattle Public Schools and [our school] are doing is that too little thought has gone into this and they’re merely checking boxes so they can say, “Here’s what we’ve done.” This is all a knee-jerk reaction without any evidence or research to suggest it will have any impact, there’s been no training for the teachers and there’s a good chance it’ll do more harm than good.
And of course, when these token gestures eat up precious time, which teachers are always complaining they don’t have enough of, it results in less time learning.
These conversations are things parents can have at home or in the community. [I described what we do in the black community].
The sad irony of this all is that where black lives really don’t matter is in our public school system. They are locked into the worst of our schools and the mediocre instruction on reading and writing that they get is now being sucked up by stupid gestures like those we saw today. It’s no wonder that while 78% of parents support charter schools in their neighborhoods, for blacks and other minorities support now tops 80%. If we really cared about black lives, the discussion should include giving them more school options.
The conversation might also include evidence-based solutions to help improve their lot, such as those advanced by blacks like Thomas Sowell and Jason Riley. Instead, our schools are advancing a fad with no research to suggest it will do any good and embarrassing themselves like they did today because they’re rushing into it.’
[Philippa] replied with:
‘My school didn’t do that. But they did do curricula on race. My kid’s classroom read “The Sneetches”, and then did an exercise separating the kids into two groups based on a random criteria (whether their hand was stamped or not). One group got to play with some school equipment, while the other group had to wait five minutes. Afterward, the kids got to discuss how they felt about this random exclusion. Overall, I was pretty happy with how kid centric the process sounded. So you see, it is something that can be introduced sensitively and sensibly.
I’m sorry, but having a token relationship with someone of color does not do nearly enough to explain to kids the inequalities that often exist right under our noses, and how arbitrary those inequalities are.’
‘[Philippa], I’m glad that your school seems to have put a little more thought into what they did… As I mentioned, the lack of preparation and effort is what particularly bothered me. That said, reading “The Sneetches” and separating kids…would have been equally pointless for my daughter’s class for at least a couple of reasons. First, segregation is not the issue Black Lives Matter is concerned with. Second, there would have been zero context about what the school is trying to demonstrate, because kids her age have no idea about the history of slavery or the civil rights movement. On the contrary, our children have grown up with a black president. Indeed, a friend’s five-year-old saw the second debate and commented that the people running for president had “light skin” like him, because he was surprised you could be president if you weren’t African American.
It’s not clear to me how you’ve so precisely determined the extent of our relationship with our black friends or whether what we do goes far enough. But I do know that many Black Lives Matters supporters are calling for people to get involved in their community, and to talk and spend time with them. Not so long ago I got into a spirited debate with another black friend … He is a very strong supporter of Black Lives Matter and initially didn’t want to even hear me out because he wrongly assumed I didn’t spend any time in the black community. He happens to think that getting involved in it is the single most important thing for people to do.
But hey, if that isn’t nearly enough for you, my sister in-law is raising two black kids, whom we spend time with every year, including this year at Easter where our kids hunted for eggs together. And later this year, as we always do, we’re visiting my black friend, his Asian American wife and their kids. They’ve visited us here too.
Ultimately, I think raising color-blind kids, particularly kids at this stage of life, is best done by parents. We don’t expect schools to do that for us, nor do we think they’re equipped to do it well. In fact, there’s a high likelihood they’ll make matters worse. Based on this week’s evidence, I’d say we’re right.’
‘I’m hoping based on what else you said that you’re not being purposely dense re: what’s the point of that exercise?
It’s not about explaining segregation, or something historical to our children. It’s about explaining that other people get treated differently based on questionable “differences” that some people agreed on, and that others buy into with their tacit indifference. Today. If that wasn’t clear enough, do ask the friends and people you rattled off as if to prove you’re not racist (I believe you, you don’t have to convince me) a few question such as: do they ever encounter people who judge them only based on what they look like, not the content of their character? I suspect their answer would be: yes, definitely. Sometimes in ways that complicate their lives.
That’s what the BLM day is all about. It’s about sharing the consciousness that while laws about discrimination have been created, and we allegedly abide to them, not everyone has moved on, and they take those biases with them into their lives and workplaces. Moreover, in an attempt to shrug off that as our own problem, we cocoon ourselves in our mostly affluent communities and tell ourselves we are raising our children to be color blind and thus allies, when ignoring that others are in fact treating people differently does affect the people we propose being allies to.
We may not have redlining in Seattle anymore (but we did), however there is de facto segregation in Seattle even today. Just ask a person of color who find themselves looked at funny when they move into a block full of white neighbors, or even walking in our own neighborhood while passing through. Just ask them how safe they honestly feel when stopped by the police, whether the officer is white or another person of color. Also ask yourself: why is SPS being monitored for rights violations based on the fact that children of color in our schools are very often targeted disciplinarily in a disproportionate amount? Is it perhaps because pretending that color bias doesn’t exist doesn’t really preclude many children of color to feel its effects? For many children in this school district, discrimination is not an abstract concept, it is something very real that affects their parents’ lives, and their own.
As for appropriateness, I have a five year old, and it didn’t take BLM awareness day for us to discuss discrimination. We often talk about what makes people thick, and why some people always insist on focusing on differences instead of sameness. We talk about how skin color, gender, and other random differences are sometimes taken to be permission to treat people differently. However, we talk about how those differences are superficial, and arbitrary, and if you could magically strip something like skin and eye color from people, you would quickly find that their inside is just like yours, they often feel the same things you do, and so forth. We had to have this conversation extremely early with her because she is on the spectrum, and therefore has been on her own receiving end of being treated differently as soon as it became apparent to her peers that she isn’t exactly like them. It isn’t right, it isn’t fair, but it happens, and it’s helpful to understand that it will happen and acknowledge that truth. If a five year old can wrestle with that conversation, I don’t think the concept of arbitrary group segregation is too far a stretch for any child her age.’
‘My friends and I have had many discussions about the times they’ve been treated differently and how they’ve felt. There’s no denying it’s a problem. The question here is what is the solution.
I commend you for discussing discrimination with your daughter. It sounds like you did a terrific job. And that’s exactly my point. Your family, our family and other families are perfectly capable of having these conversations, engaging with the community and raising kids that don’t discriminate.
What I don’t get is why [Sam]–whose daughter was treated so terribly by [her school] he removed her from it–thinks the school can do a better job than any of us at tackling this topic. Similarly, I struggle to understand why you think a school district, that you note is being monitored for civil rights violations, and has a history of racial bias and treating others differently, will do a stellar job of teaching our kids how not to be biased and to treat everyone the same.
Yes the school is doing it with good intentions, but good intentions are insufficient for our kids.’
‘Sometimes the only way these kids will encounter this kind of discussion is by being confronted with it at school. For me, the importance of the school initiating the discussion is that not all parents will discuss race in an open and honest way, whether they’re uncomfortable or just not inclined to tolerance.
And yes, SPS is not perfect, but if one of the ways they are trying to amend their ways is by discussing openly the inequalities that they can perceive, they get credit for having good intentions.’
‘Well I think we’ve come to the crux of our disagreement. I have more faith in the parents of our community than I do in our government. You on the other hand believe in paternalism and by that I mean:
“The policy or practice on the part of people in positions of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates’ supposed best interest.”
While you’re confident in your ability and mine to raise our kids well, you have less faith than I do in our fellow neighbors. Such a position has resulted in countless policy disasters in the past, from the bussing of students to the separation of aboriginal children in Australia from their parents.
The irony here is your prejudice against your fellow neighbors is resulting in your desire for their kids to be taught not to be prejudiced.
This brings to mind a famous quote of Frederick Douglass, one of the African-American leaders of the abolitionist movement, [who said]:
“The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us…. I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! … And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! … Your interference is doing him positive injury.”’